When journalism becomes activism

propaganda Few immigrant groups have it easy in the United States. When my maternal grandparents from Ireland immigrated in the early 1920s, they saw “No Irish Need Apply” signs in big-city storefronts. So it’s natural for reporters to feel sympathy for immigrants, even those who came to this country illegally.

Yet reporters need to ask themselves questions. At what point does my story about an ethnic group bleed into activism on their behalf? Shouldn’t the voices of natives be heard?

Granted, these queries are not specific to religion journalists. But they pertain to them, as the growing number of Hispanics changes American religion.

Take this story by Pamela Constable of The Washington Post. Her story is an overview of the local Hispanic Catholic community on the eve of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington. Yet the heart of the story is a grievance by local Hispanic Catholics against not only their neighbors but also their co-religionists. As Constable quotes one Hispanic Catholic,

“We had to struggle for 10 years to be able to hold a Spanish Mass here,” said Dan Masa, an immigrant from Peru who assists at communion at St. Joseph’s Church in Herndon. The parish had virtually no Hispanics once, but now more than 1,000 people pour into the Spanish Mass on Sunday afternoons. “Some of the [people] still look at us funny, but we are all children of God,” he said.

Masa sounds upset and possibly resentful. Are his complaints and grievances valid? Constable never says. There are no quotes from the church’s pastor or an old member of the congregation. Instead, Constable tells readers that the Washington archdiocese held its first Mass in Spanish in 1963 and holds many today. That information doesn’t answer the question.

Earlier in the story, Constable noted that Hispanic Catholics have another grievance against their non-Hispanic Catholic (i.e. white Catholic) neighbors:

Many churches offer Masses in both English and Spanish, and a few are experimenting with bilingual services, but language and cultural barriers often divide congregations. In some cases, the immigration debate has further split Hispanic and non-Hispanic worshipers, especially in suburbs that have dealt with such acrimonious issues as day-laborer centers and police helping to enforce immigration laws.

Constable should have specified the immigration debate in question. Is she not referring to the debate over illegal immigration? Granted, later in the story Constable uses the term “illegal immigrants” to refer to Hispanic Catholics. But the reader is confused, and quite likely under the impression that the issue at hand is legal immigration. Constable should have been more accurate.

She also should have been fair, to those opposed to illegal immigration. She does not quote a single person, Catholic or non-Catholic, opposed to the practice. To be sure, the Catholic bishops are closer to the side of the liberals than the conservatives on this dispute. But for a reporter, the issue is fairness, not which side should win.

It’s natural for reporters to treat immigrants with a lot of heart. But they also need to regard their grievances with their head. Otherwise, their stories become indistinguishable from an interest group’s press release.

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  • richard boyce


  • Julia

    This is one of the reasons that Latin was such a good idea for so long. I spent time in both France and Italy before the vernacular was introduced. I had no problem at all participating in Mass in either country. In the last 5 years I have attended Mass in Spain and Portugal; both places used familiar Latin parts of the Mass for the people to sing. I was able to participate at both places.

    If we don’t keep that going, either in mixed vernacular/Latin and some Latin Masses, the church will not remain “Catholic” for very long. We have always been multi-language and culture – it’s partly Latin that holds us together. To me that’s the bigger story portrayed in the news item. All of the immigration business is exacerbated by the division Hispanics feel at not having Masses in their language. Would they have felt less alienated if the Mass was in Latin – in nobody’s native language?

    I know that Anglicans consider themselves Catholic, but almost all the countries where they are numerous are English speaking either as the first or second language. Or are they having language problems, too?

  • Opechancanough

    “Yet reporters need to ask themselves questions. At what point does my story about an ethnic group bleed into activism on their behalf? Shouldn’t the voices of natives be heard?”

    Damn right! That’s what I told the folks at the Werowocomoco Herald back in 1608! And look what’s happened to the neighborhood…

    Signed, A proud Tsenacomocan taxpayer

  • Michael

    But the reader is confused, and quite likely under the impression that the issue at hand is legal immigration.

    For Hispanics, the issues are intertwined and not that neat. If you are a Hispanic in Reston, you may be treated with hostility regardless of what your immigration status is given the conflicts over day-laborers. If you are questioned about your immigration status by the police during a traffic stop, it doesn’t really matter whether you are undocumented or if your family has been here for generations. Even if you are legal, you probably know undocumented family and even friends.

    Since the story isn’t about immigration but instead about this particular event and the upcoming Pope’s visit, is it really necessary to have an obligatory quote from Mark Krikorian or the mayor of Herndon to illustrate there are people who don’t like illegal immigration?

  • Jerry

    enforce immigration laws.

    Constable should have specified the immigration debate in question. Is she not referring to the debate over illegal immigration?

    What else does “enforce immigration laws” mean? I’m not sure what your point is. Are you’re arguing that a reporter must always use the phrase “illegal immigration”. To me if you’re “enforcing immigration laws”, you’re dealing with people who are here illegally. Changing the law is a different matter and not covered by the story.

  • FW Ken

    In my predominately hispanic parish, the divide is between Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. The former speak mainly Spanish or only Spanish. The latter are often bi-lingual, but as happens, the native-born Americans don’t speak Spanish at all and struggle with the cultural transition 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants often have. That sort of divide strikes me as a story more interesting than boiler-plate “the white people done us wrong”. Another aspect of this divide is the lousy catechesis received by Mexican-Americans vs. the catechesis Mexican nationals didn’t receive at all.

    Oh, and a friend who has travelled widely in Mexico and Europe that parishes with Mass in more than one language are rare. Our diocese actually functions in three languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Some diocesan events are signed, as well.

  • Saint Dumb Ox

    I saw the title and laughed. I generally assume ALL journalism is activism now-a-days.

  • Penny

    I’ve tried to post a comment and sought to be careful of my observations. We are Catholics who relocated from DC Metro to the midwest. A big issue for us was unassimmilated immigrants–legal and illegal–in the area. Our neighborhood was affected by a house used as a bunk house for up to 12 single men–and we were expectant parents. We had to press the issue with local zoning. It paid off finally.

    Our particular parish, however, was largely unaffected by Latino presence. I have read many stories of gracious parishioners helping Latino Catholics, eg, to regularize and celebrate their marriages in “mass” weddings and receptions at the parish periodically. Many NoVa churches, Catholic and Protestant, offer English tutoring and so on. The diocese, thus many volunteers, offer services for resettling and such. The area has legal refugees from El Salvador, which I gather must have been around for a couple decades at this point, yet they seem unassimmilated. [I also think the violent gang, MS 13, originates from el Salvador. Many incidents have occurred in NoVa over the past few years involving MS 13.]

    The social demographics are different in DC than in other places–at least not like the midwest. There is no white, or barely black, working class. Immigrants do lower-skilled jobs. Whites, many blacks and professionals of other races, including immigrants, are high income of various levels. Almost no white or few black teens work at McD’s type jobs. Adult immigrants do.

    When I moved to NoVa in 96, I felt very weird when I could not find a car wash that was not self-serve, and young black men were working the car wash. It felt like the Old South. By the time we moved away, Latino women–no longer men–were working the car washes.

    I agree it would be nice for the reporter to have explored the issue more fully and not make the American Catholics out to be racist and uncharitable. She should have seen what our co-religionists do to assist immigrants, regardless of immigration status.

  • http://www.helpsavevirginia.com Philip Jones

    The Washington Post has a long history in meddling in the local affairs of Herndon Virginia with stories that attempt to sway public opinion during election time. There is no shortage of examples of how the Washington Post appears to be activists for the pro-illegal alien crowd.

    Herndon is finally returning to a state of normalcy where we are not overrun by illegal aliens and over crowded boarding homes but the Post suggests all the foreclosures are the result of local officials enforcing public safety measures.

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  • http://terrenceberres.com Terrence Berres

    The illustration reminds me of the Thurber story about The very proper gander.